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Home / The Course / Which Government Level? / The Role of Political Parties / Overview

All Canadians who are at least 18 years of age on election day have the right to vote in a general election, with one exception: the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.

Political parties have been at the heart of our democratic system ever since Confederation in 1867. Some would argue that such is the case since almost a century before when the Constitutional Act of 1791 created Upper and Lower Canada, providing them each with a House of Assembly. Yet political parties were not formally recognized in the Canada Elections Act until 1970 when changes to the Act allowed the political affiliations of candidates to be shown on the ballots.

In 1974, the voluntary registration of political parties with the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada was introduced. When registering, a party undertakes to disclose political contributions and expenditures, among other responsibilities, and receives several benefits, such as having its name appear on the ballot alongside its candidate in any given electoral district.

Qualifying registered parties are now also entitled to receive quarterly allowances from public funds. To be eligible, a party must have received the following in the general election preceding the quarter:

  • at least two per cent of the valid votes cast, or

  • at least five per cent of the valid votes cast in the electoral districts in which the party endorsed a candidate.

If a candidate is not endorsed by a registered party, the candidate can choose to have either the word 'independent' or nothing at all under his or her name on the ballot. For more details see the link to Election Canada’s website in the More on this Issue section.

The party that wins the most seats in a general election forms the government and is called the governing party. The party that comes second in the number of seats won forms the Official Opposition.

Similar rules apply to parties in the 10 provinces and the Yukon. The Territorial law that governs the Northwest Territories does not recognize parties. Nunavut candidates are independents and the Nunavut legislative assembly operates as a consensus government. For more information on these rules, visit the various provincial and territorial Chief Electoral Officers’ websites listed in More on this Issue.

In all but Quebec and British Columbia, municipal governments are not based on a political party system. The parties that do exist at the municipal level do not resemble the main political parties we know at the federal and provincial levels. They are often citizens’ groups that present slates of candidates supporting specific values and goals. On August 12, 2005, there were 142 political parties authorized in Quebec at the municipal level. In Vancouver alone, there were seven parties registered for the November, 2002 general local elections. For more information on these parties, check the Chief Electoral Officer’s website in the More on this Issue section.

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